With 4 States at Stake, Female Govs Play Defense

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Christine Gregoire

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–While women running for Congress are poised for a record-breaking year, the ranks of female governors are not expected to grow much, if at all, on Election Day.

There’s even the chance their ranks could shrink.

“It could be a rough night for women governor candidates in November,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

To keep their numbers constant, at least two of the four female candidates running for governor–all of whom are Democrats–need to win.

That could prove difficult.

Two–Washington’s Gov. Christine Gregoire and North Carolina’s Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue–are in toss-up races, according to Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan journal based in Washington, D.C., that tracks elections.

And the other two–Indiana’s Jill Long Thompson, a former member of Congress, and Vermont’s Gaye Symington, a speaker of the state’s House of Representatives–are running uphill battles to knock off male incumbents.

None are heavily favored to win, even though they are all Democrats running in a year when most Republicans are on the defensive.

It’s no surprise that Thompson and Symington are running behind; as challengers, they aspire to oust an incumbent, a tough task even in anti-incumbent election years like this one, said Debbie Walsh, executive director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick.

Perdue and Gregoire, on the other hand, are experiencing tougher campaigns than expected precisely because they are incumbents in a year when angry voters want a change in leadership, whatever the party, according to Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Gregoire Called Most Vulnerable

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, thinks this is partly what’s hampering Gregoire’s re-election bid in Washington. Duffy, who considers Gregoire the country’s most vulnerable incumbent governor, says she faces a serious threat from Dino Rossi, a former state senator who came within 129 votes of beating her in 2004.

An Oct. 2 survey of likely voters in Washington state put the race at a tie, with Gregoire and Rossi each getting 48 percent of the vote, according to electronic media company Rasmussen Reports.

Gregoire won office in 2004, capping an all-female political leadership trifecta that included Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and catapulted Washington state into the national limelight.

Now, as a Democrat running in a state tilted toward Democratic candidates, Gregoire’s party affiliation does help. And she can also count on some help from Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama, who leads GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain by 10 percentage points in the state, according to Rasmussen Reports.

But Duffy said Gregoire could be vulnerable because she does not represent the kind of change from the status quo that voters are seeking. Democrats have occupied the governor’s mansion for decades, she noted.

Walsh, at the Center for American Women and Politics, is more bullish about Gregoire. “I expect her as the incumbent to be in good shape to win,” Walsh said.

The strongest of the four female governor candidates may be Perdue in the battleground state of North Carolina.

Perdue–who would be North Carolina’s first female governor if elected–is running neck-and-neck with moderate Republican Pat McCrory, a seven-term mayor of Charlotte, for the seat left open by term-limited Democratic Gov. Mike Easley.

Open seats are traditionally the best opportunity for women to win office because incumbents–most of whom are male–are so difficult to unseat.

A September poll by Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group had Perdue leading McCrory by 6 percentage points, and she could benefit if the state goes heavily for Obama.

But as the heir-apparent to Easley, she could face resistance from voters looking for change, the University of Virginia’s Sabato said. “After 16 years of Democratic governors, North Carolinians may be ready for their own homegrown change in the executive office suite.”

Thompson, Symington Trail

With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, both Thompson in Indiana and Symington in Vermont are running behind.

An average of four polls conducted in September and October gives Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, a 10-point lead over Thompson, according to RealClearPolitics. A former aide to President Ronald Reagan and GOP Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, Daniels served in the Bush administration as director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2003.

Symington trails Republican Gov. Jim Douglas 48 to 33 percent, according to a RealClearPolitics September poll. Seven percent of those surveyed said they supported Anthony Pollina, an independent candidate who is making a pitch to the state’s more progressive voters.

Still, Symington, who ran a whole-grain bakery before entering politics, has one ace in her hand. If Douglas fails to win 50 percent of the vote plus one, the race will be decided by the state Legislature, where she presides as Speaker over the majority.

“If Douglas doesn’t get to 50 percent plus one, it goes to the state Legislature, and they elect her,” Gonzales said.

If all four female candidates win, women will attain a total of 10 gubernatorial seats next fall, beating the record nine that served in 2007.

There are currently eight female governors, and one–Democrat Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware–is retiring, to be replaced by one of three male nominees.

The other seven gubernatorial races this year feature all-male slates.

This year’s field of female nominees is down from the record 10 that ran each year in 1994, 2002 and 2006, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

That’s partly because there are only 11 governor’s races this year, far fewer than in midterm election years, which host more gubernatorial elections.

Nominees’ Numbers Are Down

Still, the number of female nominees is lower than other presidential election years, such as 1996 and 2000. “The reality here is that we are down,” Walsh said.

The number of female governors could further diminish if McCain wins the presidency and takes his Alaskan running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, out of her office in Juneau.

If Obama wins, female governors such as Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas or Janet Napolitano of Arizona could leave their offices to join the administration. Napolitano has been mentioned as a possible attorney general or secretary of the Homeland Security Department; Sebelius as a possible secretary of the Health and Human Services Department.

Gubernatorial gender parity is important because women bring a heightened sensitivity to issues of special concern to them, such as family leave and child care, said Walsh. Many programs geared toward the poor–most of whom are women–are managed at the state level.

Female governors also have used powers of appointment to put more women in top-level decision-making roles, Walsh added.

Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, for example, appointed a woman to serve as the state’s first female attorney general and paid more heed to female lobbyists and activists outside of government. “It’s a trickle-through process,” she said.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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